Organic Food Fight

Mulling over whether it’s worth spending more on organic greens, nectarines, or milk? You’ve got company. The assumption that organic produce tastes better and is better for you than conventionally-produced fruit and vegetables is as bruised as an organic farmers’ market peach brought home on a bike.

fruit-vegetable-mosaicPhoto by Flickr user Auntie P used under the Creative Commons license.

Consider this: A major study out of Britain which garnered loads of press last week, concludes that there’s no evidence that organic produce and livestock products are more nutritious than conventionally-grown food. The research, published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, reviewed 50 years of scientific literature on the subject, and focused on 55 rigorous studies.

Of course, not everyone buys organic for its health benefits. Some choose organic for environmental, animal welfare, or farm worker concerns, all of which were outside the scope of the U.K. report. Many buy organic apples, berries, corn, or eggs because of what’s not in these foods: no chemical pesticides, hormones, or antibiotics. No irradiation or fertilization with sewage sludge, and no genetically modified ingredients. “I buy organics because I want foods to be produced more naturally, more humanely, and more sustainably,” writes New York University nutrition professor Marion Nestle in a recent Food Politics post, echoing the sentiment of others. “I see plenty of good reasons to buy organics.”

Nestle sites superior taste as another factor in forking out more for organic, and many consumers concur. There’s nothing like the juicy, flavorful first bite of a richly-red, ripe, organic, locally-grown, sun-warmed, freshly-picked tomato to make organic converts out of people used to mushy, bland, pale, cold-storage, conventionally-grown tomatoes flown in from afar to sit on supermarket shelves, right?

Wait, not everyone agrees. The notion that organic produce is always more delicious than conventional fruit & veggies has also been called into question of late.  Los Angeles Times food editor Russ Parsons, a self-dubbed, non-believer in organics, notes that the label doesn’t guarantee superior quality or taste.

He hit a nerve: His recent column received around 90 comments — the overwhelming majority in agreement with Parsons’ position.  The idea that if you aren’t eating fruits and vegetables that are organically grown, then you might as well be “mainlining Agent Orange or handing your money straight to some giant industrial agricultural corporation,” is inaccurate, writes Parsons. “Whether something is grown organically might be one of the factors you use when you’re considering what to buy, but it is by no means the only one,” he adds. “For me, seasonality, locality and — above all, flavor — trump it.”

Still, sales of organics have doubled since the federal government began certifying food as such about seven years ago (though it still represents a tiny percentage of overall food sales). Most U.S. grocery stores now stock some organic produce or products, and 1 out of 3 Americans have purchased organic food at least once.

What’s in the label, anyway? The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s definition is essentially a marketing term that has little to do with food safety or nutrition, says a spokesperson for the department in a recent New York Times piece by food writer Mark Bittman. The government’s designation also falls far short of the desires of many organic farmers and advocates, notes Bittman. Some small-scale sustainable farmers can’t afford to go through the government’s organic certification process, or don’t think the label is meaningful so don’t bother. And much of what is produced in America under the umbrella of organic food is part of large-scale food production practices.  (Check out the documentary Food, Inc. for more details.)

Given the bad economy, even people who are predisposed to buy organic are finding themselves on a tighter food budget and making choices on what organic produce to buy based on lists like the “Dirty Dozen”, from the Environmental Working Group. (Of course, the assumption that organic equals more expensive isn’t always true either. Just as it doesn’t necessarily mean “local.” )

Bittman argues in his recent post that the national debate on food should focus more on how to eat well — sticking to real ingredients, eating more plant-based food and less animal products and highly-processed foods, cooking from scratch (aka author Michael Pollan‘s thesis) — rather than whether or not you load up on organic versus conventional goods.

(Interesting aside: Judging by another recent research review, eating well is harder to do now than in the past.  A study published this year in HortScience revealed that the nutritional content of today’s conventionally-grown fruits and vegetables is 5 to 40 percent lower than produce picked 50 years ago in the U.S. and U.K. Perhaps another reason to grow your own?)

Despite the recent ballyhoo, farmers’ markets overflowing with organic food continue to draw crowds willing to pony up good money for the stuff. On a recent Sunday at one stand, the line for squash, lettuce, tomatoes, corn, and other summer bounty rivaled the wait to ride Disneyland’s Space Mountain. When this shopper got to the head of the queue she overheard one seller say to the other, “Have you ever seen anything like this?”

So, then, readers, where do you stand on the organic debate? Is buying organic produce worth it or a waste of money? Share your opinions below.


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6 Responses to “Organic Food Fight”

  1. Romney Steele Says:

    hi Sarah

    There’s been tons of debate about this issue on the ASFS list serve-here’s also a posting from Slate:
    My feeling is that so many of the studies are actually inconclusive, or seem focused on only one aspect of the debate, as Marion Nestle pointed out in her response. Obviously, eating more fresh vegetables and fruits is the ultimate goal; buying local or organic or from your local farmer seems to make the most sense. I would much rather, at this point-knowing or not knowing, buy food that I know is grown without pesticides, for my health if not the environment. I also don’t believe in the hype that organic is always more expensive if you do your shopping well, I mean Whole Foods is not the end all–; then again we are in the bay area.

  2. Sarah Henry Says:

    Hi Nani (Romney),

    Thanks for the tip re the Association for the Study of Food and Society. I’ll check it out and readers can, too:

    I agree with the points you make, I think many folks do. If you have any tips about buying organic on a budget, bring ’em on.

  3. Amy Sherman Says:

    Like so many decisions in life, I think it’s complicated. While those who think organic is the answer oversimplify, so too does Russ Parsons.

  4. Julie Says:

    Agree that it’s complicated in terms of buying organic and the health benefits to your own family. It’s not so complicated when you look at the farm worker families working in the fields where the pesticides are sprayed. Science is only starting to look at this issue, but the potential link to pesticides and Parkinson’s disease (see Science Daily from April 2009 – and perhaps Alzheimer’s disease (see Greater Boston PSR’s recent report Environmental Threats to Healthy Aging – makes you think twice before buying conventional produce – if you have the resources to make that choice. Maybe not for your own family, but the health of the larger community.

  5. Isidro Says:

    Julie is taking a very careful, scientific approach. I will not be as detached. On my mother’s side of the family we are from Chiapas, Mexico. My family are farmers and in a family known to live easily into their eighties, my eldest uncle, Guillermo, died of inoperable brain cancer 11 years ago at the age of 56. The cause was his extended exposure to pesticides.

    He was 14 months younger than my Mom, and consequently they were very close. He will always be her little brother.

    Besides being robbed of 30 years of life, and leaving behind my cousins and widowed aunt, it is tough to support the use of pesticides just to buy perfectly red – and bland – tomatoes. No thank you.

    • Sarah Henry Says:

      Hi Isidro, Thank you for sharing a different, important — and very personal perspective — on this debate.

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